State of Wonder

by Ann Patchett
(Harper: 353 pp., $26.99) 

If you believe in fate, the novel is the perfect art form, especially big, juicy novels with plenty of plot. After all, plot is fate—characters follow narrative paths like refugees from the land of human will. They do what they’re told (despite writers’ protestations to the ethereal contrary) and in truly satisfying novels they sew up loose ends, reconcile, forgive, fulfill dreams and generally move toward wholeness (as we say on the West Coast) or adulthood (as they say on the East Coast).

Ann Patchett writes satisfying novels. This is her fifth and she has long since proven her ability to manipulate complicated plots that involve many fully dimensional characters; that double back on themselves; that involve archaeological memory across generations; are full of surprises and generally behave like canny animals who know that the reader is a pretty good hunter and they have to outrun, outfox and outsmart us all.

So we read as predators, hungry, on full alert, wanting the truth, wanting to know the outcome, wanting to believe in fate.

Marina, the main character in “State of Wonder,” is a scientist, trained as a doctor, with a PhD in pharmacology. She works for Vogel, a big pharma company, and she is sleeping with her boss, Mr. Fox, the man who holds the purse strings. Marina has bad dreams; she wakes up screaming, remembering her father, who left his family in the United States and returned to India. She is also haunted by a botched cesarean she performed 13 years earlier as a medical student—blinding the baby. This was what drove her into pharmacology. Her professor in medical school was one Doctor Swenson, a fierce, cruel, demanding mentor she would rather forget.

But Doctor Swenson, now in her seventies and working for Vogel researching a fertility drug in a remote station in the Amazonian delta, has reentered Marina’s life. A colleague of Marina’s, Anders, is sent to the Amazon to see if Dr. Swenson is making any progress, but a brief letter from Dr. Swenson informs Marina and Mr. Fox that Anders has died of a fever.  Body missing. Mr. Fox insists on sending Marina to find out what happened.

The Amazon is Marina’s worst nightmare—the dirt, the bugs, the large reptiles, the heat. It is not until she meets the Lakashi people, the subject of the research, that she begins the deeply satisfying work of aligning herself with her own fate, her path. The Lakashi women remain fertile into their seventies. They chew on the bark of certain trees from the time of their first menses. The drug Vogel is after would allow women in the rest of the world to conceive late in their lives. 

In the course of the journey into her own personal heart of darkness Marina sheds layers and fears and stops screaming in her sleep. The novel is so tightly woven that to reveal anything more, as Marina quickly learned in the jungle, would ruin the story.

Lest you think that Patchett keeps too tight a grip on her storylines (a grip that can ruin a good story, make the characters appear slavishly devoted to their author or worse, two-dimensional) the good news is that the story picks up speed, appears to have a life of its own in the last third of the novel.

Information brilliantly withheld is meted out, motivations are made clear, and Patchett appears to sit back, not unlike the creator in that other great story who sat back on the seventh day, to allow her subjects to move toward their fate. Mystery bubbles up; coincidences and strange occurrences that, had they appeared earlier in the story, would have lacked credibility and strained credulity but now seem utterly plausible because, well, we believe the author.

There are many smaller sources of satisfaction as well. The moral dilemmas of medical researchers are explored, questions of priorities (money spent on drugs to give the wealthy more choices vs. diseases that kill hundreds of thousands of people each year), the beauty and fertility of the jungle, the moral bankruptcy of corporate profits, the pleasure of locating true humanity in the least expected places—all this and heaven too, as my grandmother used to say with a martini-sized grin and an unladylike snort that signified pure satisfaction.

It wouldn’t be so bad if Ann Patchett were the head script-writer on this big project, human life on planet earth. We’d be in the dark for much of the time, floating upriver in a wooden canoe, but in the end we’d sleep through the night.